They used to hope for normalcy. Then they hoped for a single good day. Now, they just relish the few good moments because they know things can change like the flip of a switch.
On a recent afternoon, 13-year-old Mari Antcliff held her 15-month-old little sister Shiri Franklin in her lap and read her a book. It was one of the good moments. Mari was happy. She had been released from Shodair Children’s Hospital earlier that day.
Several weeks before that was one of the worst moments.
“The scariest day started as the best day ever,” said Rick Franklin, Mari’s stepfather.
That day started with an upbeat family conversation about relationships, followed by a visit to the park and then a stop at coffee shop. When they returned home, Mari discovered that her 17-year-old sister, Kelsey, had eaten a bag of Cheetos that Mari had apparently hidden away for herself.
“Mari exploded,” Rick said.
She threw a radio down a flight of stairs and wrote obscenities on her bedroom wall. Things got so bad that the police were called and Mari was taken to St. Peter’s Hospital and evaluated. Six weeks later, after many more bad days, Mari was taken to St. Peter’s and put on suicide watch until a bed opened up at Shodair.
When Mari Antcliff was born, her mom, Kandis Franklin, sensed something was not quite right. Her youngest daughter at the time was meeting all the major developmental milestones, but she would not sleep through the night and she screamed most of the time. Her toddler years, the years most mothers recall with a smile, only got worse.
“At 3, she became very violent,” Kandis said. “She would hit, scratch, pull hair. She was very destructive. At 4, she started drawing gory pictures. She never slept through the night. She tried to stab her sisters with a fork.”
A doctor diagnosed Mari with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed Ritalin. Mari went to kindergarten, but then suffered a grand mal seizure, which came with another diagnosis — seizure disorder. She was prescribed more medicine.
At age 7, Mari was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She’s also been diagnosed with opposition defiance disorder, learning disabilities and, most recently, psychosis. There’s a good chance that she has schizophrenia.
“I gave up hoping for normalcy when she was about 7 or 8,” Kandis said.
It’s rare for a child to be diagnosed with psychosis, even more rare for a child to be diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Diagnosis manuals describe psychosis as a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes social or occupational dysfunction. Patients can experience delusions and hallucinations, distortion of speech, disorganized thinking, and difficulties in language, communication and understanding reality.
Mari said she has a hard time controlling her outbursts. She said she occasionally sees a man in a black coat and also hears voices — a boy and a girl.
“The boy says the bad things; the girl says the good things,” Mari said.
According to Mari’s therapist Michelle Cuddy, in addition to managing the illness with medication and therapy, the key to Mari’s future success is strong support.
“The biggest helping factor is her mom,” Cuddy said. “She has a lot of mental health knowledge and has done a lot of research.”
In addition to her firsthand experience with her own daughter, Kandis works as a family liaison officer for the Children’s Mental Health Bureau.
“I think it helps when people who have schizophrenia have a good family base, a friendship base, a good support base,” Cuddy said. “They need people who can do research and can advocate for them. People who understand reality can speak for them.”
Kandis and Rick, who works at the Center for Mental Health’s Care House, don’t deny that it’s difficult to raise a child with a mental illness.
“It’s like being in combat,” Rick said. “You’re always on alert.”
“We are exhausted emotionally, physically and financially,” Kandis said.
Last month, Mari, her sisters and mom flew to Valencia, Calif., to meet a family experiencing similar challenges. The Discovery Health channel was filming a documentary called “Born Schizophrenic.” The show focuses on a girl, Jani Schofield, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was just 5 years old. Jani’s father, Michael Schofield, started an online support group for families dealing with severe mental illness. Mari was invited to meet Jani and to participate in the filming.
“It was fabulous knowing there are other families out there,” Kandis said. “It was affirming for Mari to know there are other kids out there.”
Kandis said it was also reassuring to find a group of people who are hoping for the same thing — more services for families dealing with mental illness.
Kandis and Rick would like to see more services in Helena. Kandis said that, unless you have Medicaid, some services are just not available.
“Along with in-home supports such as a therapeutic aide who could help Mari with all of her everyday activities and social activities, (we need) a day-treatment program that would give her the support she needs to be able to ‘do’ school,” Kandis said. “A support group or activity group for girls her age would be a great asset to her as well; there is one for high school kids but not junior high kids.”
Kandis and Rick are able to juggle their jobs and care for Mari, as well as baby Shiri. But this year has been especially hard for Mari. After a successful sixth-grade year — during which she won a leadership award, made the honor roll, had lots of friends and was able to manage her behavior — she went downhill.
“She started not wanting to go to school,” Kandis said. “Her cognitive ability had changed. In October, she had some type of psychotic break. We found her balled up in a corner saying ‘Everything is too loud.’ ”
Mari’s been in and out of Shodair a few times this year, including a residential stay for about three months.
“We’re waiting for the next explosion,” Rick said.
But Mari is more than her mental illness. She’s a seventh-grader at Helena Middle School who likes to hang out with her friends. She likes to watch movies. She likes hip-hop and Bob Marley. She likes to shop.
She’s also sensitive to what people think of her.
“Kids at school call me ‘Shodair girl,’ ” Mari said. “The say, ‘Oh, your life is miserable.’ ”
Mari said it’s hard to be different but she sees it as an opportunity to help others like her.
“Mari at her core likes to help people,” Rick said. “She’s got that type of empathy when she’s not yelling or screaming at someone.”
During her recent stay at Shodair, Mari said she was able to help some friends who had “really big problems.”
“I feel like I helped them; I made them happy,” Mari said. “I told them you can’t give up. You live life the way it is. You have to live; you can’t give up. I won’t give up.”
Kandis and Rick won’t give up either. Their hopes for their daughter seem simple enough.
“I want her to be happy, graduate from high school, maybe go to college, have relationships, friends, boyfriend, a job,” Kandis said. “Hopefully, we can give her a life worth living.
“Down in there, there’s that wonderful, caring girl.”